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Please say that’s not the way the Bucs drew up the Dallas game plan

John Romano | The defending Super Bowl champions are back on top but they won’t be for long if they play like Thursday night.
Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) comes up with the ball after a Bucs fumble late in the first half Thursday night.
Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory (94) comes up with the ball after a Bucs fumble late in the first half Thursday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 10

TAMPA — Well, thank you very much, Dak Prescott. You too, Mike McCarthy.

In one balmy evening at Raymond James Stadium, the quarterback and coach of the Dallas Cowboys finally got across the message that Bucs coach Bruce Arians had been shouting about day after day throughout training camp.

Y’all need to stop staring at your reflections in the Lombardi Trophy.

Oh, the Bucs managed to keep the party going on the first night of the 2021 NFL season on Thursday. Tom Brady rode to the rescue with a winning drive in the final seconds and Tampa Bay pulled out a thrilling 31-29 victory against the Cowboys.

But, make no mistake, Dallas beat the strut out of the defending world champs.

“There’s obviously a lot to clean up,” Brady said.

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (4) runs out of the pocket as Bucs  defensive tackle Vita Vea (50) stumbles during the first half Thursday.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott (4) runs out of the pocket as Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea (50) stumbles during the first half Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Bucs are good, no question about that. Good enough to overcome an epidemic of injuries in the secondary on opening night. Good enough to blow a late lead and still look calm and in control with the clock winding down and no timeouts remaining. And, yes, they may ultimately be good enough to become the first team in more than 15 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls.

But they ain’t good enough to mess around against a quality opponent.

And they certainly ain’t good enough to commit an ungodly number of penalties, let an opposing quarterback throw for more than 400 yards and turn the ball over four times.

In the last 10 years, the Bucs had been 2-23 when turning the ball over four or more times in a game, so you can either consider this a gift from heaven or a sign that these guys have a ridiculous reservoir of talent.

And perhaps that’s part of the duality of winning a Super Bowl. Contentment may creep into the huddle, but expectations are also intensified. In the end, the Bucs have to know that this kind of performance is not going to work on a weekly basis.

“We can play better and not put ourselves in that situation,” Arians said. “Obviously the turnovers, the penalties, things we can improve on. But our guys fought and won the game.”

Yes, they won, but you could argue the Cowboys beat the swagger out of them.

The scary thing is Dallas may have given the rest of the NFL a blueprint on how to attack the Tampa Bay defense.

It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t outrageous, it wasn’t overly clever. The Cowboys barely tried to run the ball and did not often throw deep. They simply focused on short, quick passing routes during the game’s first 25 minutes.

The result is Tampa Bay’s aggressive pass rush was negated, and the defensive backs were forced to pick up the slack.

And, early on, the youngsters in the secondary failed to step up.

Sean Murphy-Bunting got beat on a 22-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, Jamel Dean got beat on a 5-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and Ross Cockrell got beat on a 21-yarder in the third. Carlton Davis was called for pass interference and, in the second half, so were Dean and Andrew Adams.

For all the gushing of how Tampa Bay’s defensive backs grew in the postseason — and they did play exceptionally well — it’s now worth wondering how much the pass rush contributed to that improvement.

Now, to be fair, the Bucs will not face many teams with a quarterback as good as Prescott and receivers as talented as the Cowboys. And the secondary came in the game shorthanded without safety Jordan Whitehead, and then lost Murphy-Bunting to an arm injury on that first touchdown and Mike Edwards left briefly with cramps.

But this is not what you expected of a team that rolled through the postseason and destroyed the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. It’s not what you expected of a team that brought back every starter and was a nine-point favorite in the season opener.

The passing game is still stellar and the defensive line looks like it will feast on running backs again, but you can’t commit 106 yards in penalties and you can’t allow an opponent to convert more than 50 percent of their third downs.

Yes, the Bucs came back and won and that’s a good thing.

And maybe, down the road, it will be a good thing that Dallas beat the conceit out of them.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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